My Tale Of Orthodox Bells
By Lynn Betsanes
When Father Andrew told me we were getting bells for St. Luke
Church was getting bells and the Handmaidens would ring them, something inside me
sparked. Then I was asked to meet with Fr. Deacon John Suchernick on September 10, 2002,
at St. Luke to learn how to ring these bells. I was very excited, until I realized I had
to climb two ladders. (Good thing I was wearing sensible shoes!). Nevertheless, I overcame
my fear of heights and ascended to the top of the bell tower.
The view from there grabbed my heart. When Dn. John began sharing
stories and experiences, and we started ringing the bells, I knew I was supposed to do
this. I went home still excited and researched "bells" online for hours until my brain was
saturated.Although bells are some of the oldest man-made instruments, the Bible
often speaks of cymbals. ("Praise Him with loud cymbals, praise Him with clashing
cymbals!" -Psalm 150). Biblical cymbals resembled pitchers with a wide-open neck. They
produced a strong sound when struck against each other. In Exodus 28:33-35 God orders
Moses to put small, golden bells on the vestments of Aaron the High Priest so their sound
could be heard as he ministered. [In the Orthodox Church small crotals (small, jingling
metal pieces) adorn the vestments of Bishops].
Saint Paulinus of Nola in Italy first rang bells. By the ninth century
even the smallest parish churches of the Roman Empire had them. In contrast, bell ringing
spread slowly among early Eastern Orthodox Christians. They were accustomed to hearing the
rhythmic clacking sound of semantrons, narrow hand-held wooden boards struck at
various points by hammers. (Semantrons are still used today, especially in certain
Bells eventually spread to traditionally Orthodox countries. Bells
probably became popular in Russia because the wooden clacks of the semantron resembled
sounds of everyday living (i.e., chopping wood, etc.). However, the sound of bells was
uniquely recognizable and carried for long distances. Bells called people to something
special-the church, the service of prayer, to God Himself. This was a welcome relief from
the harsh realities of daily existence. Even if people couldn't get to the church, they
could follow the service from afar with the help of the various ringing patterns of the
Russian bells came to North America near the end of the 18th century.
Russian traders established settlements in Alaska, missionaries arrived, and many Alaskan
natives became Orthodox Christians. Then churches were built that incorporated Russian
bells. So when St. Innocent traveled to Alaska he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a
reader, and a bell ringer!
Bell ringing in the Orthodox Church is an important liturgical art
form, like iconography or architecture. In fact, bells are called "singing icons." They
are named, blessed and Chrismated in a special service. The Bishop or Priest asks God to
bless each bell to the Glory of His holy Name. He asks that the voice of its peal will
strengthen its hearers' piety and faith so that with courage and prayer they may oppose
and overcome all slanders of the Devil. He also asks that the voices of the bells appease,
calm and cease all destructive things of the air (winds, storms, etc.). He then prays, "O
Lord our God, You not only use spiritual and living things for Your glory and for the
salvation and use of Your faithful, but also inanimate things…"
Russian bells are played as percussion instruments, like drums, not as
melody makers. The bells are stationary with a free-swinging clapper or tongue and are
rung in different ways for different occasions.
Blagovest-calls people, both living and departed, to
major services. At St. Luke, blagovest involves striking Luke, the largest bell, 12
times. (During Lent Eugene, the 2nd largest bell, is struck). During the Liturgy we
ring blagovest at the beginning, between the Creed's twelve articles, at the
Consecration, and at the closing.
Zvon-a rhythmic peal of bells. A double peal and triple peal
involve rhythmic playing, pausing, and repeating the pattern once or twice more.
Trevzon-used for the Liturgy and for times of joy, especially
Perezvon-repeated striking of one bell only on Good Friday
before the shroud is brought forth and on Holy Saturday at the Magnificat of Matins. In a
chain perezvon each bell is individually struck several times, moving from the
largest to the smallest bell. This large-to-small-bell pattern occurs during any blessing
of water and symbolizes the self-emptying humility of Christ.
Perebor-the funeral (chain) toll, a slow striking of each bell
from smallest to largest. (We rang this on September 11th when the police and fire brigade
brought the World Trade Center beam into our Church). This symbolizes the Christian ascent
from birth to maturity. As perebor ends, all the bells are rung simultaneously to
According to Dn. John bell sounds carry as far as a person in the bell
tower can see. That was so empowering to me because bell ringing spreads the walls of our
church far beyond the bricks! We never know who hears our bells and how it affects people
or their lives. So we must ring our bells for everyone, not just for us. (The sound of the
bells should bring peace and comfort to a person. If they cause agitation, the person may
have some serious spiritual issues).
Dn. John told me about a woman who insisted on going to the nearby
Orthodox Church. Her husband was in a coma and dying in a local health facility. At
midnight on Pascha, the bells started proclaiming, "Christ Is Risen!" He sat up in
bed, opened his eyes, and said, "Do you hear that beautiful sound? They are calling me
home!" Then he peacefully died. She said she had to see the place from where the bell
When I talk to people about St Luke, and I often do, they always ask,
"Where is your church?" When I state the location, they say, "Oh yeah, church hill. I've
been sledding there!" Before I started ringing the bells at St. Luke, I had been praying
to God for direction in my service to the Church. That's why I felt such assurance when I
first struck them. I now know that I'm supposed to help spread knowledge of our church,
not for its great sledding hill, but for the voices of its beautiful Orthodox bells.